All Students Thrive – When Lessons Go Wrong!

“All students thrive when school lessons are engaging and student-centered.” That is hardly a profound statement. Such beliefs go back thousands of years. Just as noteworthy; “We teach as we are taught!”, still plays out in too many classes. Good schools and good teachers reflect on their own practices to recalibrate and create experiences where the art of teaching and the science of learning synchronize.

I taught in the classroom for 18 years primarily as a middle school math teacher. My specialty was working with “squirrelly” 7th grade boys. Understanding human development will lead to a unique conclusion; the  behavioral patterns of the “terrible two’s” are repeated at about the age 12-13. The difficulty for the ‘two’s are they want independence and control over their environment, but they lack the communication skills to get needs met. 13 year olds also want independence and control, but they are dealing with complex feelings for the first time, and are unable to control their impulses or communicate their needs.

There is a real art form that middle school teachers must acquire to manage the developmental needs of their students and still make learning happen. For me, I learned the art of middle school math teaching strictly by trial and error with strong reflective skills and a willingness to get better. The best learning lessons for me were always when things in the lesson went very badly, very quickly. The advantage of teaching the same material four or five times in a day, meant I could adjust, so the later lessons had more damage control put in place.

My experience was not unusual. The early years teaching phase is really about building curriculum knowledge and some basic systemic pedagogy and classroom management talents. The mastery time for classroom skills for most teachers is approximately 8 years. It takes time to understand all the intricacies with human connections, relational trust, content, and classroom system building. This process can be accelerated with in-class coaching support, and peer support, but that was not a common practice 10-15  years ago.

By about my 15th year at my school, I began to reflect and question my overall teaching effectiveness. My students were mostly coming from affluent/upper middle class homes, and had access to many learning resources. Was it possible that the same students could learn just as well regardless of the teacher? Because of my concern, I reassessed my practice and asked my school leader to support me. The coaching and collaboration was very valuable to me, as I found a need to focus in a few areas.

When I finally left my school to become  a school leader, I felt my experiences left me adequately prepared and competent to help others. What I was not accounted for was the level of expertise that was required to manage classes at Title 1 schools in predominately low-income minority neighborhoods.  There are amazing teachers everywhere, but I have the most admiration and respect for the quality instruction taking place in those classes.

The most significant difference between teaching and learning in affluent vs. low-income schools is the level of dependency students have on the quality of instruction. Affluent students tend to have more resources and personal experiences to access prior knowledge, as well as a more defined academic identity. The majority of low income students are completely dependent on the quality of instruction to provide their access to the learning material. In addition, most Title 1 schools also need to fill gaps with socio-emotional learning and capacity building for academic identity.

When I first began observing and coaching teachers, I focused towards disarming their anxiety. Understanding that my presence in a classroom would shift the dynamic, it was important to gain relational trust so I could observe the teacher in a natural state. Describing the experience of teaching close to 10,000 lessons with just as many bad as good was my attempt to bring comfort and compassion to the process. With the additional ten-plus years of coaching teachers, I have compiled a short list of common traits that contribute to lesson chaos.

all students thrive

Relationships Matter

At the very heart of education is human connections. Ultimately, learning is about stepping outside of a comfort zone, and willing to make a mistake. There must a level of trust between a teacher and student to take that first step. The teacher can only be successful if they create a pathway to “pull” the student into the learning. I am not implying that the student-teacher relationship steps into a friendly dynamic, because students respond well to firm, clear and consistent boundaries. Additional scaffolding techniques may need to be added to create the learning access, but the motivation needs to be positive and from an emotionally healthy place: “all students can learn with the right encouragement and support.” If the reinforcement is shame-based or punitive, then the student is going to react from a place of “fear of failure”. The natural reaction to “fear of failure” is frustration, isolation and withdrawal. It is not uncommon to see amazing teaching and structures in place in a classroom, but evidence a real disconnect with the affect and body language of the children. In such environments, there is teaching but limited pockets of authentic learning.

In an extreme case, I witnessed a veteran white teacher lecturing from the front of the room to a class of Latino, mostly English Language learners. The room was rectangular, and the teacher chose the narrow length of wall as the front of the classroom. The resulting seating configuration, meant there were only 4 rows with 8-10 students in each row. The teacher did not monitor the class room as she taught behind a barrier of desks and tables. The segregation of teacher and students was more than symbolic. Half of the board was the lecture notes, which I could not read from the last row of seats 25-30 feet away. The other half of the board was filled with students names and times, almost entirely male. When a student moved, called out, or was “unfocused”. They were assigned 15 minutes of after-school detention. She noted the detention by adding 15 more minutes to the student’s name if it was already on the wall. Inevitably the student would not show up to the detention so the time owed was doubled and an office referral was written. It was not out of character to receive 25-30 office referrals everyday from this teacher. Upon further inspection of the names on the chalkboard, some of the times for some students went well past 10 hours of detention time. By the end of the semester, most students were so beaten down, that all they could do was look straight ahead, with hands at side, and pretend to be paying attention.

The remedy is for a strong school leader to collect as much data from classroom observations and any relevant academic data to support the concerns, prior to a conference to determine the teacher’s mindset. The teacher may believe that the level of silence and compliance is a sign of strength for classroom management. In some cases, it comes from a place where the teacher deeply believes that the students just can’t learn, and the teacher exhibits some symptoms of “learned helplessness”. Either way, the teacher may not recognize that their behaviors are having such a negative effect, and just needs some suggestions and advice. In the particular example I described, I was not the site principal, so my involvement stopped at documenting the situation. The principal chose a “hands off” approach in dealing with the veteran so there was no change.


 Lesson Planning

Of all the different trip mines to a bad lesson; the lack of planning can be the most immediately recognized. The observer will identify a strong sense of improvisation between the teacher interactions and the students. Walking into a classroom where there is not any evidence of a learning objective,  the teacher is doing most of the talking, and the majority of students can not tell the observer what is being taught; are clear indications of an unplanned lesson. The introduction of scripted lessons  in recent years seems to have compounded the consistent lack of planning, because the pre-made lesson plans lack any teacher ownership.

In some occasions, the lesson objective or standard may be posted, but the learning objective does not get internalized by the students. This may indicate teacher compliance from a principal directive regarding the expectation for posting standards on the board. On one occasion, I obviously surprised the teacher with my visit, and witnessed an improvisation strategy.  The teacher grabbed a can of equity sticks (popsicle sticks with individual student names) and started calling on students. Such a practice is a good checking for understanding strategy for  random calling of students, and a recommended practice for the teachers on my staff. The act would have convinced me, if not for several students calling out; “What are those sticks?”,  “Is this something new?”, “Are we playing a game?”

Good lessons must have a clear learning objective which is made explicit to the students, as well as an explanation for why learning the material is important to them. The lesson needs to demonstrate a logical linearity and progressive release of teaching responsibility. The gradual release model suggests a beginning focus on the teacher and closure to be student-focused through a series of steps: teacher provides knowledge (“I do”), teacher demonstrates and models expected learning (“I do with modeling”), the teacher and students interact with the content together (“we do”), followed by independent learning and guided practice( “you do”).

The lesson should contain the necessary strategies and use of collaborative activities from partner-pair to small group. Just as important is the use of pre-planned questions to reinforce both checking for understanding and higher level thinking skills. As many years as I have taught, I like other veterans, still convince myself that I am talented enough to improvise higher level Bloom’s Taxonomy questions, and the results are more often that not, a missed learning opportunity

Another consideration in crafting a strong lesson involves careful attention to the relative proportion of teacher-talk versus student-talk opportunities. When working with young teachers, I frequently use the analogy of a tape recorder. “If I taped your lesson and the only voices that could be recorded were the students, what would I hear?” Research shows that students retain less than ten percent of what was taught when it was presented orally, yet “lecture” or teacher-talk is still the most prevalent strategy in classrooms.

Finally, there needs to be a clear understanding of what I refer to as the “activity engagement ratio”. How many students are actively engaged in any one task in any moment during the lesson? As a long-time coach, I paid close attention to this ratio as I planned basketball drills, so I will use the coaching analogy. If I have 12 players on the team, and I want conduct a simple layup drill.  I can start with a single line of 12 at half court as the first player, dribbles to the basket, shoots, rebounds, and returns with the ball to the line. In such a case, I have actively engaged one player, while assuming everyone else is participating. The net result after a few players have shot is chaos with kids becoming impatient and pushing and shoving each other. I can break the group into two lines with a shooter and rebounder at the same time. I have now actively engaged two players and reduced the other player’s wait time. I can continue adding more responsibilities to the drill with outlet players and and extra passers, until I have minimized the off-task time and increased active engagement.

The same is true in the classroom. Sending one child to the board at a time to solve a problem, disengages the rest of the class from the learning responsibility. It is much better to use mini-whiteboards, where everyone actively participates and gains equal opportunity to receive recognition for success. Too many lessons end up with chaos and off-task misbehavior when incorporating strategies that minimize the number of active participants.

The remedy for this type of behavior, would be an immediate conference and critical conversation to convey the urgency for students needing a properly planned lesson. It may be necessary to work with the teacher for a while to support proper lesson plan development.


Lesson Pacing

There is an old adage that says, “a child’s attention span is equal in minutes to the age of the child”. The implication of this statement is simple, expecting 8 years olds to listen to a 15 minute lecture will never go well. Nothing pulls apart a lesson faster than poor pacing. I can think of very few things more painful than watching a math class as the well-intentioned teacher assigns five warmup problems from the previous day’s assignment, directs students to work individually, and then calls up five random students one-at-a time to solve their problem on the board. I have seen such activities take upwards of 45 minutes to complete, immediately followed by the teacher going over the homework in a similar manner. Even with a perfect planning, the meat of the lesson has been lost due to too much time on low impact activities.

My rule of thumb in a lesson has always been 70 percent mastery. After I teach a skill, I do an informal assessment with a checking for understanding strategy. If the majority of the class responds positively, I move on to the next skill. Going over individual problems when everyone understands the skill or waiting for every student to understand the material takes away valuable learning time from the majority ready for the next challenge. A veteran teacher would take notice of the struggling students and prepare a plan to help those students individually at a later time.

Of course, there may be times in the lesson where the depth of the content takes more than a few minutes. That challenge is easily navigated by breaking the cluster of time into smaller chunked activities. A pre-writing activity may include; individual think time, partner pair-share, all-class popcorn activity, completing a template followed by small group discussion and guided practice.

A well-paced lesson is a string of progressive learning actions that keep students engaged over short chunks of time. I characterize the lesson as “having a snap.”

A remedy for over-extended learning activities is to encourage the teacher to plan out the timing in lesson development, and maintain a classroom timer.

children in line


I may have exaggerated earlier when I suggested that lack of planning is the most recognizable lesson breakdown. A classroom where the actions and events feel like it is the first day of school every single day can be overwhelming to observe. If a teacher does not have clear behavioral expectations and effective boundaries in place, the classroom experience is a cacophony of excitement, frustration, joy, anger, laughter and crying from the voices of the inhabitants.

My barometer for a well-managed classroom is “does the first ten minutes of the classroom run itself?” Is there evidence of  assigned seats,  clearly defined procedures for backpack storage, materials being prepared, tardy students, homework pass-back, taking roll etc.

Every activity, transition, and procedure must be explicitly taught, practiced and reinforced. No exceptions!

Regardless of grade level, students need to understand the classroom boundaries for participation, movement around the room, voice levels, peer interactions, responding to questions, taking notes, and making up work among others. In some cases there may be procedural posters for dozen of different situations posted around the room. The elementary school teacher may have great relationships and lesson planning, but if the students use “controlled chaos with smiles” to transition from their desks to the community carpet, valuable learning time is lost and pacing becomes impacted.

As a basketball coach, my experience in teaching team transitions was of great benefit to the classroom. I invested much of practice time to teach players how to shift strategy or realign a formation as efficiently as possible. Real-time chaos in games led to undesirable results on the scoreboard. My teams were drilled in responding to simple one-word prompts to transition. The same was true in classroom, as every aspect was detailed, thoroughly presented and practiced. The most vital part of procedural and systemic implementation of behavioral expectations is the timing. The processes and protocols must begin on the first day of school and be immediately re-visited after any extended holiday or vacation break.

The remedy for lack of proper procedures takes time and patience in most cases. There needs to be an observation and problem-solving period, where the root causes are identified and prioritized. Only then can an effective action plan using strategic actions and high-yield strategies  be developed.

The one recent success story I like to share is about a wonderful lady, who entered education as a second career. She had a soulful and spiritual presence, but needed support with procedures in the urban school she was assigned to. On the first day of school, she chose a cutting activity with scissors for her 1st graders. I  got the anxious and angry parent phone call the next morning as two of the young girls in class decided a couple of braids needed to be trimmed away from each other’s heads. The one braid in question still contained the child’s original baby hair. The teacher was mortified and visibly upset, because her dream was to teach and become an outstanding educator. My heart felt for her, but the lack in judgement made me question her long-term success. After our debrief, I discovered a very resilient, resourceful and pro-active individual. She listened to direct feedback and suggestions throughout the year and there was improvement.

Late in the year, we invested in a nationally-known classroom management program, No Nonsense Nurturer.  We needed support for our new teachers and creating a school-wide culture plan. From our initial walkthroughs, we identified the first grade teacher as high priority for real-time coaching and direct support for procedures in her classroom. In her first session and conference, everyone saw the immediate effect on her teaching. She did not have a competency issue, she had a confidence issue. All she needed was reinforcement for her natural teaching assets, and clear direction for how to express classroom procedures with her students.

During the second session, the teacher was challenged with engaging her most trying student: a willful young lady with no boundaries. As were talking to the teacher briefly in the hallway, the young lady wandered out  interrupting the conversation. I distracted the child, while the NNN coach told the teacher to approach the child and say, “I care too much about you to let you be unsuccessful.”. We all witnessed a transformative moment as the child responded to the words with a smile and a hug and led the teacher back into the classroom.

Within days, the first grade teacher became one of the strongest teachers on staff with classroom management and procedures. As she entered her second year, her class became a place for outside visitors to watch good instruction, and she was recruited as an exemplar to be videotaped for training videos for both the district and No Nonsense Nurturer.

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